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The Duke's Treachery: February 2-5, 1831

Updated: Feb 21

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.


Francesco IV, the duke of Modena, was unhappy. The realm he ruled was too small for his ambitions, which were very great. Duke Francesco wanted to extend his lands; but, as he saw, there was little opportunity to do so, at least honestly. For one thing, Modena was surrounded on nearly all sides by the domains of Francesco’s Habsburg relatives (he was a grandson of Empress Maria Theresia). To the northwest lay the duchy of Parma, ruled by Francesco’s second cousin, Maria Louisa (Napoleon I’s second wife), and to the south was the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, ruled by another second cousin, Leopold II. The Kingdom of Lombardy-Venezia bordered Modena on the north — and this was ruled by Francesco’s first cousin, the Austrian Emperor Franz I. Directly to the east of Modena lay the Romagna, which belonged to the Papal States. Francesco IV had little hope that either his Habsburg relatives or the pope would give him more territory, so the only avenues open to him were either direct conquest or treachery and deceit.


Francesco IV, by Adeodata Malatesta

Faced with these options, Francesco chose treachery and deceit. He joined forces with Ciro Menotti, a tradesman and a Liberal leader in the city of Modena. A member of the Carbonari, Menotti was determined to drive the Habsburgs out of northern Italy. His alliance with the Habsburg Francesco IV was thus unusual, to say the least. It seems that Francesco had agreed to allow a constitution for Modena in return for becoming king of the Italian Habsburg lands – and maybe, as he hoped, of all Italy as well.


But as the planned revolution drew near, Francesco got cold feet. He had hoped that France’s new king, Louis Philippe, would help him in a struggle against Austria; but when it became clear that the “King of the French” did not want to challenge the Habsburgs directly, Duke Francesco grew fearful. No doubt, Metternich had heard some rumors of the duke’s treachery – and what would happen to Francesco if the all-powerful Metternich should turn against him? Francesco knew he had to prove his fidelity, and he decided to prove it in the only way he seemingly knew how – by treachery.


Assault on Ciro Menotti's house

On the night of February 2–3, 1831, Menotti was surprised by the news that a battalion of infantry, commanded by the duke himself, had surrounded his house, where he was meeting with revolutionaries. Menotti and his friends barricaded the doors and held off the ducal troops for several hours, but in vain. When the conspirators had all been seized, the duke sent a note to one of his officials: “Last night it was discovered that a terrible plot had been made to overthrow me. The conspirators are in my hands. Send the executioner.”


Before the executioner could do his work, however, Duke Francesco heard frightening news. Bologna, the chief city of the Romagna, had successfully rebelled against the pope. On February 5, just two days after the capture of Menotti, Bologna set up a provisional revolutionary government and hoisted the Italian revolutionary tricolor flag of green, white, and red. Fearful for his safety, Francesco fled to Habsburg-controlled Milan. With him he took the unfortunate Ciro Menotti. Soon Mantua, too, fell to the revolutionaries. The Bologna revolt spread southward, through the Marches of the Papal States and then southwestward into Umbria. It appeared it would not stop until it pierced into the Patrimony of St. Peter and overwhelmed Rome, the city of the pope.


Music from Milan in 1831


The following features a performance of the aria, Ah! Non credea mirarti, from the opera La Sonnambula (“The Sleep Walker”) by the Sicilian composer, Vincenzo Bellini. The opera was first performed on March 6, 1831, in Milan — an Italian city then controlled by Duke Francesco IV’s cousin, Emperor Franz I of Austria. Perhaps Francesco, who had fled to Milan from Modena at the time, attended the performance.